NEW ORLEANS – In a hostile environment against a high-caliber opponent, the Falcons couldn't make enough plays in crucial moments to clinch a playoff spot.
Many will point to the discrepancy in penalties – the Falcons were penalized 10 times for 91 yards, including a few that negated big momentum plays, while the Saints had three penalties for 30 yards – but while that may have played a role in the outcome, it wasn't the only factor.
Atlanta will certainly focus on cutting down the penalties, but the Falcons' struggles on third down and in the red zone were more significant.
"We'll go back and look at our missed opportunities, for sure, but then it's right back to work in terms of our preparation and everything that we need to do to play well this weekend against Carolina," Falcons coach Dan Quinn said after the game.
After converting 58 percent of their third-down chances in their Week 14 win against the Saints, the Falcons had just a 15 percent conversion rate on Sunday. The first of the Falcons' two third-down conversions against the Saints did not occur until their second possession of the third quarter.
As was the case at times during the first meeting between these two teams, the Falcons relied on their defense to limit a potent Saints' offense while they struggled to sustain possessions. Atlanta's defense gave a valiant effort, holding New Orleans to just six points for much of the first half.
The Falcons' offense marched toward Saints territory at the end of the second quarter, but a Matt Ryan pass bounced off the hands of receiver Marvin Hall on a third-down play and was corralled by rookie cornerback Marshon Lattimore.
Three plays later, Drew Brees hit Ted Ginn Jr. for a 54-yard touchdown pass to give the Saints a 13-0 lead heading into halftime.
Missed third-down chances played a role in the Saints possessing the ball for 17:18 in the first half, a long time for any defense to contain that offense.
Outside of the long touchdown pass to Ginn, the Falcons' defense made enough plays throughout the afternoon to keep the game within reach. When Atlanta had chances to chip away at the early deficit, however, it couldn't.
On the first series of the second half, linebacker Deion Jones continued his brilliant play against the Saints, intercepting Brees and returned the ball 41 yards to set up the Falcons' offense at the 2-yard line.
With an opportunity to cut into the Saints' lead and steal some momentum, running back Devonta Freeman had the ball jarred loose by defensive tackle Tyeler Davison, which linebacker Manti Te'o recovered. The turnover quickly put an end to the Falcons' best scoring chance at that point in the game.
Atlanta had another opportunity to score its first touchdown of the game at the end of the third quarter, following a 44-yard pass from Ryan to Julio Jones, which helped the Falcons move deep into Saints' territory and eventually down within the 10-yard line.
Facing third-and-goal at the Saints' 6-yard line, Ryan again found Jones in the front right corner of the end zone. While Jones had full possession of the football and both feet down inside of the end zone, the officials ruled the ball never crossed the plane of the goal line. That decision was upheld following a challenge from Quinn, leaving Atlanta facing fourth-and-goal from the 1-yard line.
Down 20-3 at that point, the Falcons opted to try for the touchdown on the first play of the fourth quarter.
Freeman received the handoff from Ryan and cut toward the left side of the Falcons' offensive line searching for a hole. That hole never materialized, however, and the Saints tackled Freeman short of the end zone to once again prevent the Falcons from scoring a touchdown.
Atlanta finished the game 1-of-4 in the red zone and 0 for 2 in goal-to-go situations.
"We had two chances having the ball at the 1-yard line, and to come away with zero points, it's kind of the tale of the day," Ryan said after the game. "I also thought we had an opportunity to get points before the half, and to turn the football over there and then [have it] lead to a touchdown, we put our defense in a tough spot. You can't do that in these types of games. We missed too many opportunities."
Despite the low point total and some of the mishaps throughout the game, the Falcons' offense didn't have as poor a performance as many may initially think. There were several times when Atlanta looked capable of moving the ball against New Orleans, and the Falcons outgained the Saints in total yardage 331-315.
What proved most costly for the Falcons on Sunday was their inability to make enough plays in third-down and red-zone situations. But Quinn greatly prioritizes those aspects of the game, and he will undoubtedly have a plan in place to improve in those areas heading into the season finale with a playoff spot on the line. "Now you have to assess [the mindset] to say, 'can we play our very best this week to go where we want to go and advance,'" Quinn said. "That's really where the mindset of the team is at."